Chickens in the city? SoBu mulls backyard flocks
Date: August 27, 2009
Byline: Joel Banner Baird
SOUTH BURLINGTON — For centuries, rural homesteaders have enjoyed backyard-fresh eggs and broilers. It just might be South Burlington's turn.
This week, responding to mounting interest among chicken-fanciers, the city's Planning Commission reconsidered rules for residential, poultry no-go zones.
An early draft of a chicken ordinance spells out tentative limits on flock size (six), the proximity of a henhouse to homes (20 feet) and noise ("not loud enough at the property boundaries to disturb persons of reasonable sensitivity.")
The draft is "a conversation-starter," Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner said Wednesday; a new ordinance would have to move through the City Council.
Current rules allow livestock only in agricultural parcels of 10 acres or more in South Burlington.
The catalyst for change arose among residents in the East Terrace community, near the University of Vermont's athletic campus, who met with Conner earlier in the summer to lobby in favor of a chicken or two.
"We talked about shared concerns," Conner said. "Like the effect chickens would have on neighborhood dogs; and whether allowing chickens would be an arbitrary choice — or should we be talking about geese or pot-bellied pigs?"
Chickens made it into the draft ordinance, but only hens (roosters are the noisier sex).
Conner said a poultry ordinance for South Burlington neighborhoods would be consistent with the broader region's appetite for fresh, home-grown food.
Backyard poultry trends rise with falling economies, said Leonard Mercia, a retired University of Vermont Extension poultry specialist, author and researcher.
"We saw them in the Great Depression, in World War II, and in the energy crunch in the 1970s," he said.
During the Arab oil embargo, Mercia, who had until then worked mostly with commercial poultry operations, kept track of queries for smaller-scale flocks. In one year he recorded 700 callers.
"I said to myself, 'Gee — I'd better work with these people.'"
He ended up writing a book, "Raising Poultry the Modern Way" (later shortened to just "Raising Poultry"). This week, his publisher told him that interest is building; a revised, third edition is now in the works.
Mercia's advice for the novice: "You've got to consider your operation from the standpoint of the bird's comfort — and your own."
Burlington resident Nicole Dehne decided that her backyard wasn't big enough. City Chicks, a pastured-poultry farm she co-owns in the Intervale, will contribute about 450 broilers to the local market this year.
Dehne also works as a certification administrator with the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and leads workshops for new producers.
Throughout New England, she's seen a surge of interest in small-scale poultry. It's no mystery to her.
"Raising chickens is a really easy, inexpensive way for people to jump into farming," she said. "It's very low-risk. It's not like getting a family cow."
Online sources for raising layers and broilers in the comfort of your own backyard:
• Backyard Chickens: www.backyardchickens.com
• Urban Chickens: www.urbanchickens.org
• Urban Chicken Underground: www.urbanchickenunderground.blogspot.com
• The City Chicken: www.thecitychicken.com
• Backyard Poultry Magazine: www.backyardpoultrymag.com
THE CHICKENS OF CHITTENDEN COUNTY
• In Burlington, a flock of five or more is considered "boarding livestock" and requires a special permit, Planning and Zoning clerk Nic Anderson said.
Four or fewer birds (even if all of them are roosters) are legal — unless they run afoul of other regulations designed to preserve the peace. Before you count your chickens: All henhouses must be approved in advance by the Planning and Zoning office. "No chicken is above the law," Anderson said.
• Winooski's livestock code requires chicken owners to pony up for an annual license — at 25 cents per bird. The City Council will grant a license only after a health officer has deemed that the chickens won't detract from the "health and peace" of neighbors. The zoning administer will also vet the application.
• Williston residents require no permit for poultry, but the town's livestock ordinance lists standards that will be enforced "on a complaint basis." Key features: Chickens can be raised only on lots larger than 1 acre, but not within a watershed protection buffer; henhouse setbacks must be 50 feet from property lines (75 feet for bedding and feed storage); dust, noise, pests and odor must not have "adverse impact" on adjoining properties.
• Essex Junction Development Director Robin Pierce says domesticated farm animals are not permitted. Among the critters listed as forbidden: swine, sheep, bison, ostrich and yes, chickens.
Without speculating on an outcome, Pierce said the village's zoning board would almost certainly listen to an appeal by the owner of a pet chicken that contributes neither eggs nor meat to the household.